There's always that one class in high school — maybe it's French, maybe it's chemistry, maybe it's macroeconomics — but it's likely we all passed a class that now, even just a few years later, we don't remember how to conjugate those verbs, the atomic number of rhodium, or how to explain output optimization.
If you only complete a task once or twice in your lifetime, how can you possibly be expected to retain all the salient details? Like opening a checking account – how many times have you done that in your lifetime? If it's only once or twice, you might not have remembered everything involved in the process. No worries, that's why the universe provides us with experts.
Opening a checking account isn't as difficult as mastering a foreign language or memorizing the periodic table of elements, but when you are ready to switch to a better account, like a free checking account, you'll need to know the basics.
The basics of opening a checking account
If you've opened a checking account at any time in this millennium, you already know that having proof of identification is the biggest requirement when opening a checking account. As the account holder, you must prove that you are really you – see, it's already much easier than chemistry class. Bring your driver's license with you, and a secondary proof of your address, like a paystub from your employer, or your rental agreement or cell phone bill. Print them and bring them with you.
It's helpful if you also bring along some money. Helpful, but not required, believe it or not. You will need to fund the account (also known as dropping a few Alexander Hamiltons into your new bank account), but to get started, that's optional. From here, it's time for the experts to take over.
What the checking account experts will tell you
If you consider yourself enough of an expert, you can absolutely open a checking account online. How did you become an expert? Like the chemists and economists of the world, you likely did your homework and you've probably opened a checking account more than once. Please feel free to skip ahead and start enjoying your free checking account. (And if your personal checking account isn't free, you should definitely get those notes from a classmate, because why should you pay to access your own money?)
Thankfully, a banking expert is as easy to find as your local community bank, or at a credit union in your neighborhood. Not only are they nearby, they have a higher priority than just getting their hands on your money – they want to help you get the best account for you (and you can get a taste of their customer service).
The first thing they will likely ask you is what kind of checking account you want (business checking, a joint account, premier checking, student checking, or just plain, hey-this-is-me personal checking account). If you know what you want, great. If not, ask them to give you an overview of the products and services associated with their accounts.
That might be a lot to consider. Don't panic — there's no exam in your near future — but now it's back to you. What features and options you will want or need depends on what you will use your checking account for, and if you're not sure, it's time to ask questions.
What is a checking account used for?
The benefit of having a checking account is that there are a wide range of services and benefits. For example, if you only want to keep a minimum amount of money in your account – just enough to pay your bills each month – you absolutely do not want an account that charges you a fee to keep a minimum balance. (Or any kind of monthly maintenance fee —yuck!) On the flip side, if you plan to keep a lot of money in your account from which you will manage all your expenses, both big and small, you might want to take a look at interest checking that rewards you for keeping a higher balance.
Do you plan to have your paycheck added with direct deposit? Many employers require their staff members to automate the payment process. It saves companies money, but it also guarantees there is a regular influx of cash into your account, and who doesn't love incoming cash? (If you decide to set up direct deposit, you can use that to fund your new account, so you don't even need that cash up front to get started.)
If you do sometimes get money incoming by check, be sure to ask about the deposit limits, especially when using mobile deposit. It's a feature that almost every mobile banking app offers, but the maximum deposit amount (and how much the bank might hold until the check clears) may vary. Again, asking is the best way to learn, and they are required to provide you with all those fun little details when you open a deposit account.
You may also want anytime access to all that beautiful hard-earned cash, so you'll likely want a debit card connected to your account. In fact, many accounts might offer you a debit card, but may not offer you printed checks. Which do you prefer? Ask about fees to replace your debit card if you lose yours, or the cost to have checks printed. Those are common, and worth avoiding if you can.
More importantly, ask about the fees to use both your debit card or write checks. Hint: steer clear of these! When it comes to learning the facts as you open your new account, get the free checking account that also rewards you for the actions you take anyway. Swiping your debit card, checking your online banking or mobile banking, and opting for electronic monthly statements can be your ticket to extra cash back in your account. If you want to earn an easy A in banking, don't ever pay for a service if your financial institution will pay you. That includes refunding an ATM withdrawal fee*, even if it is from another bank's ATM. Oh yes, there is such a thing.
If you plan to use the bill payment services, ask about the features during the account opening process. Some payments may be electronic and some may be sent as paper checks on your behalf. It's good to understand how quickly your payments will be received and how quickly the money will leave your checking account.
Overdraft protection might also be worth getting if you plan to keep only as much money in your account as you think you'll need. If you need more details, ask the expert for an example. How does this service work? What will it cost you if you use it? What will it cost you if you don't have it? Don't feel like you have to go to the whiteboard and know how the formula works – this isn't an advanced math class. Let the expert explain how it works and if it is right for you.
Okay, you've narrowed down your decision to the right checking account for you, you’re thinking you are ready to go. There might be a few more fun details to cover before you can officially take control of your shiny new open account.
More fun details about opening a checking account
You are going to have to sign your name. You probably already guessed that. Your financial institution will want to have your official signature on file. With so many transactions happening digitally, you might think official signatures are too old-school, but there are ways your account is protected (both as a FDIC or NCUA insured institution, and to protect your money and your identity), plus you have to state, yet again, that you really are you. Again, that part's pretty easy.
Wait – did they ask you if you want a savings account, too? Good question, and one you're not going to be graded on. There are benefits to having a savings account AND a checking account. (If you aren't sure, you can get a quick lesson in the perks of having a savings account, or you can ask that community bank or credit union expert who is proving they really want your business with their awesome customer service.)
Here's one more tip: while you are sitting there waiting for your chance to sign your name and make it official, go to your favorite app store on your phone and download the mobile app. Why not get all logged in before you leave the bank or credit union so you know everything is up and running. One little caveat: you might need to have a little money in the account for you to be fully logged in, so if you are waiting for your direct deposit to fund your account, at least make sure you get a quick view of what the app looks like and the pieces of information you will need to get logged into your new account.
You are just about ready to walk out the door with your newly opened checking account. Anything else you need from your friendly neighborhood banking expert? Yes! There's always one more thing.
One more thing for your personal checking account
It’s personal. When you need one more thing, whether a question answered about your checking account today, or even when you want to apply for a loan in the future, you need personal service. When you are opening a new checking account be sure to think about what a community bank or credit union can do to make the process easier all the time.
You don’t have to remember every detail about opening a checking account. When you are ready to open your new account, choose a financial institution with a staff of experts ready to answer all your questions. Pick a checking account that eliminates the pesky fees. Open a personal account that offers you benefits and rewards.
*Qualifications, limits and other requirements apply. See financial institution for details.
Discover more ways to be proud of your money in our previous blog post, "Here are the 4 main benefits of using a checking account."